Laos is a small, South Asian country that recently experienced a significant increase in its gross domestic product (GDP). Poverty in Laos plummeted from 33.5 percent to 23.2 percent allowing the country to meet the Millennium Development Goal by reducing its extreme poverty rate by half. However, there is still much work to be done. Around 80 percent of Laotians live on less than $3 a day and face a 10 percent chance of falling into poverty. Knowing that poverty and poor health care often co-exist, the government has made it a goal to strengthen its national health care system by achieving universal health coverage by 2020. Below are nine health care facts about Laos.
9 Health Care Facts About Laos
- The Food and Drug Department is the regulatory authority for health care in Laos. The body is responsible for regulating pharmaceuticals and medical devices. The most recent legislation the country passed is the “Law on Drugs and Medical Products No. 07/NA,” in 2012. The law provided stricter guidelines for drugs and medical products. It also creates a classification for medical devices and registration for drugs and other medical products.
- Between 1997 and 2015 Laos’ poverty rate declined from 40 percent to 23 percent. The improvement in life expectancy is likely due to the recent improvements of the government on health care in Laos. For example, in 2011 Laos’ National Government Assembly decided to increase the government expenditure for health from 4 percent to 9 percent, likely influencing poverty rates.
- Laos has separate health care programs for different income groups. The country has the State Authority for Social Security (SASS) for civil servants, the Social Security Office (SSO) for employees of the state and private companies, the Community-based Health Insurance (CBHI) for informal-sector workers and the Health Equity Funds (HEFs) for the country’s poor.
- Laos’ current health insurance only covers 20 percent of the population. The lack of coverage could be due to the large spread of the country’s population outside of its major urban centers. Around 80 percent of Laos’ populace live and work in rural communities. The country’s ministry of health has made efforts to provide more services to people who live outside the main urban centers by decentralizing health care into three administrative levels: the central Ministry of Health, provincial administration levels and a district-level administration.
- Wealthy Laotians in need of medical care travel to Thailand for treatment. Despite the increased cost of care in Thailand, Laotians travel internationally because of the better quality of care. Health care in Laos at the local levels suffers from unqualified staff and inadequate infrastructure; additionally, inadequate drug supply is a problem. Due to these issues, Laos depends on international aid. In fact, donors and grant funding finance most of the disease control, investment, training and administrative costs.
- Many Laotian citizens believe illness is caused by imbalances of spirit, spiritual possession and weather. Despite Laotian spirituality, knowledge of germs as the root cause of the disease is well understood. Laotian hospitals use antibiotics and other medications when they are available. However, folk medicine is often used as a treatment. For example, herbal medicines and spiritual cures include items, such as a special tree bark, which is believed to grant long life when it is prepared with rice.
- Many Laotians remain malnourished. Despite recent economic growth, many children under 5 are chronically malnourished; every fifth child in rural areas is severely stunted. Malnutrition is largely influenced by natural disasters. Laos has a weak infrastructure making it difficult to cope with floods, droughts and insect swarms.
- Local drug shops as a primary source of medicinal remedies are actually causing problems. Most of these shops are unregulated and the owners are unlicensed. Misprescription and inadequate and overdosage are common. Venders sell small packets of drugs that often include an antibiotic, vitamins and a fever suppressant. They sell these packets as single dose cures for a wide variety of illnesses.
- Laos has a high risk of infectious water-borne and vector-borne diseases. Common waterborne diseases include protozoal diarrhea, hepatitis A and typhoid. Vector-borne diseases include dengue fever and malaria. Typically, diarrheal disease outbreaks occur annually during the beginning of the rainy season when the water becomes contaminated by human and animal waste on hillsides. Few homes have squat-pits or water-sealed toilets, causing sanitation and health issues.
As it stands, health care in Laos is still underdeveloped. However, the nation’s recent economic growth provides an opportunity to remedy the problem even though a majority of the current health care system is funded by foreign sources. As with all struggles, the desired outcome will take time. With enough cooperation with other countries and non-profit organizations, Laos has a chance to create a sustainable health care system for its citizens. Increasing health education among Laotians will be one key to improving public health in Laos. This can be done through the help of nonprofit organizations and others aiding in efforts to educate countries on sanitation and health.
– Robert Forsyth